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How Not To Drown at Theatre Royal Stratford East

There’s very little in the way of set in this show: aside from chairs, a few crash barriers and at one point, a red carpet, the actors’ movements account for much of what the audience gets to see, as it largely relies on the arts of storytelling and physical theatre. Dritan Kastrati plays himself, but then so does everyone else (Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bailey, Daniel Cahill and Samuel Reuben) at some point or other. “I am Dritan,” they say, one after another, as though they identified as Spartacus.

Sam Reuben, Ajjaz Awad and Dritan Kastrati in How Not To Drown. Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
Sam Reuben, Ajjaz Awad and Dritan Kastrati in How Not To Drown. Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

There are other characters in the narrative, but it’s difficult to put a precise number on how many people there are in the story, such is the relatively fast-paced nature of proceedings. Dritan – that opening chorus of “I am Dritan” firmly establishes first name terms – follows in his older brother Alfred’s footsteps. Both were, separately, given money by his father to escape the conflicts in the Balkan region that continued long after the Kosovan War had officially ended. The journey is far from straightforward, and takes up a sizeable portion of the running time, and with good reason – there are all sorts of intermediaries, people smugglers, associates of people smugglers, drivers, ticket office staff and, inevitably, immigration officials.

The play prefers to call Dritan’s homeland Kosova as opposed to Kosovo, the former name being Albanian and the latter Serbian. Dritan’s journey, not only to Britain but through his secondary school years, is both physically and psychologically draining. The language barrier is eventually overcome and despite the rapid turnover of foster carers, the audience gets to know them all reasonably well. The story is very much Dritan’s, however, and it would have been useful to hear other perspectives – we find out, for instance, what he thinks his carers think about him, but does this correlate with their actual opinions?

There were people along the way that stood up for Dritan, and the production is careful not to pander to stereotypes – there’s a social worker who agrees with his frustrations, for instance, and a fellow pupil who cautions him not to retaliate with haste to each and every insult and provocation in the school playground. It’s a harrowing account, as Dritan is moved from home to home like a chess piece, though the play’s criticism is focused on the rigidity and idiosyncrasies of Britain’s care system and its many procedures that must be followed to the letter, rather than individual staff members or foster families.

But it is also an amusing story, with finer details enriching the narrative. Having heard so much about London prior to his arrival, Dritan is underwhelmed by Ilford town centre (a point which went down well with the audience at Theatre Royal Stratford East, a bus ride away from that town). In some respects, there is nothing new about someone questioning whether it was the ‘right’ decision to leave everything they knew and loved, and indeed hated. But that appears to be Dritan’s point: his story is relatable to so many. They live, or more likely survive, amongst us.

The family dynamics are noteworthy, particularly with regards to Dritan’s conflicted feelings of displeasure that he was ever sent away in the first place, contrasting with a longing that never went away for a return visit home. It’s clear, when he reaches the neighbourhood in which he grew up years after he left it, that his father was right after all. If the staging makes it look as though the actors could fall off a sharply angled wooden structure at any point, it’s indicative of the lack of stability in Dritan’s life. A moving story in more ways than one, this bittersweet yet hopeful play is thought-provoking without being sentimental.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Award-winning theatre company, ThickSkin, returns to the stage with an action-packed, highly visual production telling the painful yet uplifting true story of an 11-year-old unaccompanied asylum-seeker.

“I don’t know why my Dad let me go, especially when he knew how dangerous, how hard it was… I was too young, too weak to make this journey. I wouldn’t have sent me… He wouldn’t have sent me unless there was a reason.

In 2002, in the turmoil after the end of the Kosovan War, Dritan is sent on the notoriously perilous journey across the Adriatic with a gang of people smugglers to a new life in Europe. He relies on his young wit and charm to make it to the UK. But the fight for survival continues as he clings to his identity and sense of self when he ends up in the British care system.

How Not to Drown shares a story of endurance for a kid who wasn’t safe or welcome anywhere in the world, performed by an ensemble cast starring Dritan Kastrati himself.

Commissioned by ThickSkin and Lawrence Batley Theatre.

Written by Nicola McCartney & Dritan Kastrati
Director & Movement Neil Bettles
Movement by Jonnie Riordan
Design & Costume by Becky Minto
Composition & Sound Design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Lighting by Zoe Spurr

Ajjaz Awad
Esme Bayley
Daniel Cahill
Dritan Kastrati
Sam Reuben

ThickSkin and Traverse Theatre Company supported by Theatre Royal Stratford East present
Written by Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati
Directed by Neil Bettles

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